Roben Farzad’s Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami is a rip-roaring ride through South Florida’s heyday of Kafkaesque excess: the 1980s.
“I want it to transport you,” says Farzad, host of Full Disclosure on NPR One and a Miami native. “I want to give you a sense of place. I want all of us—because I was four, five years old when a lot of this went down—to feel like a fat mosquito on the wall at the Mutiny Club, watching it happen.”
At the members-only Mutiny Club, Florida’s most notorious fat cats partied hard with their lawyers, law enforcement, Hollywood elite, and a bevy of big-hatted babes known as the Mutiny Girls. Cocaine kingpins from Rodolfo “Rudy Redbeard” Rodriguez Gallo to Augusto Guillermo “Willy” Falcon and Salvador “Sal” Magluta (“Los Muchachos”)enjoyed every indulgence drug money could buy, from a jacuzzi filled with Dom Perignon to enough cocaine to make a dance floor’s worth of beautiful people believe they were masters of the universe.
At its height, Farzad writes, “Burton Goldberg’s Mutiny at Sailboat Bay was one of the country’s most lucrative hotels, perennially overbooked and sending off armored trucks with sacks of its cash profits, albeit in the new murder and drug capital of America, a city that had been ravaged by race riots, gun killings and the sudden arrival of 125 thousand Cuban refugees, many of them sprung right from Fidel Castro’s jails.”
It’s not pure party: Hotel Scarface is an intricate tale including but not limited to: murder, mayhem, plunder, payoffs, and international intrigue from the Bay of Pigs Invasion to the Iran-Contra Affair. No Mutiny regular embodies these contradictions as readily as Ricardo “Monkey” Morales, the “Zelig-like Cold War/Cocaine War guy who [still haunts] Miami 35 years after he died,” Farzad says.
“This book,” he says, “is where the Cold War crashed into the War on Drugs, crashed into the sexual revolution and Miami’s cocaine coming-of-age. All of those different things, to my mind, met one another at the check-in counter at the Club at the Mutiny.”
Hotel Scarface began when Farzad met a mysterious man outside the decommissioned Mutiny at Sailboat Bay, just before leaving for Princeton in the summer of 1994 (the details of which appear in the book). Armed with a LexisNexis login at Firestone Library, he began researching the address—written on a post-in note stuck to a $50 bill.
“It just started coming up in all of these records,” he says, “like Herbie Mann’s flute was stolen there, there was a drug bust...I picked [the subject] up and put it down and picked it up and put it down, and this is now the result of 22 years of obsession.”
Farzad graduated from Princeton and Harvard Business School and became a businesses journalist, reporting on Wall Street, finance, and Latin America for Bloomberg Businessweek. He took as many Miami-based assignments as possible, reporting Hotel Scarface at night and on weekends, interviewing and re-interviewing nearly 100 subjects, from former kingpins to las tres letras (the DEA), to whom he expresses deep gratitude in an author’s note.
Ultimately, Farzad calls Hotel Scarface “kind of my love-hate letter to my hometown.” Kirkus calls it “a gripping account of how the Mutiny’s role in Miami’s cocaine business changed not only the city, but America.”
“People cannot believe what happens to a town when its Federal Reserve branch literally runneth over with $5 billion in cash,” he says, “when money is not an object. It resembled Caracas. People were murderously poor and dead or ridiculously wealthy to the point where they were literally pouring Champagne down the pipes at the Mutiny.”
“Writ large,” he concludes, “there’s something unsettled about about 1980s Miami and the national psyche. It was the closest thing America’s ever had to having a failed state on its hands.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.